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Women of certain age who defy our lazy stereotyping

By Gail Walker

Published 12/04/2016

Downing Street said the payments were an attempt to
Downing Street said the payments were an attempt to "balance" the sums received by all the Cameron children, as Mr Cameron's older brother had inherited the family home

Just who are these "elderly" we talk about so much? People like ourselves must pass over into that category of "old age", but exactly when that happens, or quite how it does, remain mysteries.

All we know is "we" don't mean "them" when we talk about "us".

What we do, though, is label them arbitrarily with both virtues and vices. They are Werther Butterscotch Grandpappy, or gentle white-haired Little Red Riding Hood Grannies - saintly creatures who have never had a malicious thought in their lives, who have always somehow been old, acquiring at some point on their journey a taste for The People's Friend, ITV3, a cup of Horlicks and leaving family events early to "get settled".

Or they are like very young children: repetitive, unreflective, unaware; by their very nature out of touch with the great currents of the world. And like young children, we love them, but they can be a bit of a chore.

So, how odd it was - but how refreshing - that Mary Cameron and Jane Williams, both in their 80s, came to dominate the headlines at the weekend.

What began as matters embroiling their famous sons - both at the very top of the Establishment in Britain as Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury respectively - developed into quite intimate tales of family tensions and emotional dramas in which both women played central roles, emerging from that weird tartan rug in which "we" wrap our elders to take ownership once more of their own lives and to account for decisions and directions in the lives of their impossibly successful and famous sons.

Mary Cameron's son struggled through what many believe to be the worst week of his premiership, wrestling with one particularly awkward legacy left by his father - offshore accounts, as revealed last week in the Panama leaks. Whatever the outcome, both of his initial clumsy defensiveness and his ultimately quite radical decision to publish the details of his personal accounts, it was the revelation of the robust decisiveness of his mother Mary in making two substantial payments to her son in May and July 2011, tax-free at the time and only liable to inheritance tax of up to 40% if she is, ahem, dead by 2018.

Downing Street said the payments were an attempt to "balance" the sums received by all the Cameron children, as Mr Cameron's older brother had inherited the family home.

Now, the negotiations within that sibling relationship and the obligations of a mother to both her sons is fascinating and not at all unusual, as anyone familiar with even modest bequests and the feuds they can ignite will know.

But what is equally fascinating is the management of affairs which Mary Cameron was able to deploy as the matriarch. Interestingly, in February this 82-year-old signed a petition opposing planned closure of children's services in Oxfordshire, the Tory-run council that covers her son's Witney constituency.

This is no helpless little old lady. Though one son is Prime Minister and the other a top QC, she moved to hold her family together, making sure that none of her children felt slighted.

Even more remarkable was the aplomb displayed by Justin Welby's mother upon her son going public with the news that his biological father was Sir Winston Churchill's private secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Browne, and not, as he had until very recently believed, whisky salesman Gavin Welby.

Justin Welby managed it well. But not as well as his mother. In a statement Lady Williams didn't have to make, she said the news was an "almost unbelievable shock" and that her fling with Sir Anthony Montague Browne was "fuelled by a large amount of alcohol".

She was brutal in confronting what must have been a painful time in her life: "It appears that the precautions taken at the time didn't work and my wonderful son was conceived as a result of this liaison ... Gavin Welby and I had a short and, sadly, dysfunctional marriage, neither of us ever doubted that we were the parents of our son Justin."

Gavin Welby himself was already an alcoholic bully. Lady Williams continued: "One feature of this pressure is that I was already drinking heavily at times. Although I could then ensure that this did not affect my work, it was later to develop into serious alcoholism during the 1960s, which only came to an end when I entered rehab in 1968. I have not drunk alcohol since."

The woman emerges not well, but very human.

Lady Williams's is a life of shades, of contradictions, of failings and, it has to be said, triumphs. Shockingly, she demonstrates just how stultifying our view of old people is. Many of us are simply not prepared to let our older relatives be persons in their own right.

Jane Williams and Mary Cameron. Two women in old age still mopping up the damage of their own lives and that of their sons - handling embarrassment and shame and blame with something not quite, but very like, aplomb.

Let's hope we ourselves in our 80s can manage even a fraction of that chutzpah.

Belfast Telegraph

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